In Ukraine, Prominent Journalists Targeted By 'Russian Hit List' Question Its Authenticity
KYIV -- The leak of an alleged "Russian hit list" has stirred anxieties and raised more questions about the bizarre Ukrainian staging of journalist Arkady Babchenko's death after journalists on the list said they doubted its authenticity.
Ukraine is still reeling nearly a week after authorities here faked the contract-style killing of Babchenko, a Russian dissident journalist, as part of a controversial and elaborate ruse they claim was necessary to foil a real Russian assassination plot.
Instead of details in the bizarre case becoming clearer, they have grown murkier by the day, with authorities fingering the director of a Ukrainian arms manufacturer that provides sights to snipers of its armed forces as the organizer who hired a right-wing, anti-Russian, former monk-turned-volunteer soldier to be the shooter.
Both have claimed t o have been in league with Ukraine's intelligence services, something Ukrainian officials first denied, then partly corrected, saying the would-be shooter, Oleksiy Tsimbalyuk, had indeed been working with them. The manufacturer, Borys Herman, was remanded in custody by a Kyiv court on May 31.
The whole affair took a strange new turn on June 5when a purported "hit list" of 47 people -- mainly journalists and political activists -- that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) claims to have discovered during the Babchenko operation was leaked to Strana.ua, an opposition news site, and published online.
SBU spokeswoman Olena Hitlyanska told Interfax-Ukraine on June 5 that she was not familiar with the Strana.ua list and could not comment on its authenticity.
"The list is a secret of the investigation," she said.
But the SBU has confirmed the existence of a 47-person list of people it claims are potent ial Russian assassination targets. They first claimed to have discovered a list 30 names long. Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraineâs prosecutor-general, said last week that all 47 people had been informed and arrangements were being made to ensure their safety.
Then later, on June 5, the SBU announced it had launched a criminal investigation into the unauthorized leak of "a list of persons whose details are contained" in materials related to a pretrial investigation, seemingly lending credence to Strana.ua's report.
The Kremlin had not commented on the list at the time of publication. But it denied any involvement after Ukraine accused it of ordering the assassination of Babchenko before he showed up alive at a press conference the following day.
List 'Multiplies Before Our Eyes'
The "hit list" caused worry and confusion for many journalists as they openly doubted the authentici ty of a document that had been so variously described in such a short period of time.
Dmytro Gnap, a journalist for independent Hromadske TVâs Slidstvo.info investigative unit, who is not among those on the list, seemed to doubt its veracity in a post on Facebook, asking sarcastically how the number of people on the list seemed to "multiply before my eyes."
Others also doubted its provenance, saying they found the makeup of it odd, since so many people on it were critics of the Ukrainian authorities. Oleksiy Bratushchak, a journalist for the independent Ukrayinskaya Pravda news site, wondered whether this signaled an attempt by Ukraineâs intelligence services to control "all [the] movements, all [the] meetings" of its critics ahead of elections.
Reached by RFE/RL on June 4, three journalists on the list who spoke on the condition that their names be withheld due to the potential threat to their lives (and because the SBU had them sign a nondisclosure agreement) said they doubted the authenticity of the list for a number of reasons.
They confirmed the list published by Strana.ua was similar to the one they had been shown by the SBU but said it had some slight differences, including variations in the order of the names and some spellings. All of them noted that Babchenko's name was not on the list.
The three said they had been offered state security but declined it, saying they did not trust the Ukrainian authorities to protect them or not to spy on them.
One of the journalists brought in said the SBU had also questioned them. Among the questions they were asked: What is your opinion of Russian aggression in Ukraine?
No Criticism Allowed?
Journalists in Ukraine have long faced harassment, intimidation, doxing, and physical attacks -- some of which has come from authorities.
On May 30, Larysa Sarhan, spokeswoman for Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko, published on her Facebook page a list of journalists that included Myroslava Gongadze, head of Voice of America's Ukrainian service and the widow of murdered Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, and National Union of Journalists of Ukraine Chairman Serhiy Tomilenko.
Sarhan took them to task for criticizing the authorities' handling of the Babchenko operation, which was also lambasted by international groups.
Harlem Desir, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, condemned Sarhanâs words.
"The publishing of a list including names of journalists, accusing them of being traitors, is unacceptable and dangerous. This can have serious repercussions for the safety of journalists," Desir wrote in a letter to the authorities. "I strongly encourage the authorities to intervene and suspend such practices, especially those undertaken by government officials, given the sensitive and difficult environment in Ukraine at the moment."
'I Got Used To Watching My Back'
Yevgeny Kiselyov, a veteran Russia n journalist and TV news presenter at Ukraine's Pryamiy TV, a network that is supportive of President Petro Poroshenko, was among the few who spoke on the record about being on the list. He told RFE/RL he believed the list was real and that he was unsurprised his name turned up on it but that it did not rattle him.
Kiselyov, who moved to Ukraine in 2008 after he was pushed out of Russiaâs media scene, and his Pryamiy colleague Matvey Ganapolsky, also a Russian who relocated here following Moscowâs annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was given Ukrainian citizenship, were the first two journalists on the alleged list to come forward after authorities upped the count from 30 to 47 on June 1 to say they had been informed and offered state security.
"I got used to watching my back," Kiselyov said. "I always assumed that I can be on some kind of a hit list."
Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv who covers the former Soviet firstname.lastname@example.org